Kate and Her Philosophy

Popular Culture and Orthodoxy
What do I think about popular culture?

There are, in sum, two positions taken by scholastics towards popular culture.

(1) Popular culture is a negative: the purveyor of all that is crass, low-brow and disgusting. It promotes/produces greed, capitalism (which is perceived as a negative), class warfare and immorality.

This argument has been around for thousands of years. You just have to read Plato to realize how long people have been twisting themselves into knots over "low" culture. Plato wanted to get rid of it, but others have wanted to "correct" or "fix" or "improve" the tastes of the "low," and they've wanted to do it since, probably, the first hunter/gatherers found they had a little extra time in the evenings. Probably Adam walked out of the garden of Eden, went, "Yo, football," at which point Cro-Magnons tried to earnestly educate him in the importance of cave art, except for the guy actually doing the cave art who wondered what all the fuss was about.

(2) There are hidden, da Vinci code-like messages within popular culture. Despite the fact that popular culture is run by crass, greedy capitalistic studios, publishing companies, etc., true artists have managed to sneak in their avant garde theories about sex, politics, economics, etc. Agatha Christie was really promoting a lesbian, Marxist agenda--that sort of thing.

I think this is nonsense, but not because it isn't true. It might be true. All art at some point has contact with an individual mind—even Hollywood dramas, believe it or not. An individual has to write the script, seven individuals if it is team-written. An individual has to direct. Several individuals have to work the cameras, lights, etc. Individuals have to speak the lines. And we view it as individuals, even if we're sitting in a movie theatre with three hundred or a thousand other people. We may be members of our communities, but we live in our own heads and die in our own heads. And what is created will subsequently always have an individual component.

What makes (2) nonsense is how far it gets taken. After all, you can find an agenda in anything or anywhere if you try hard enough. Look at what people do to the Bible. Look at what people do to themselves. Eventually, you end up with "heads I win/tails you lose" approaches. I've heard the Statue of Liberty described as chauvinistic because it is a "silent woman," i.e. our country is built on a patriarchal system which subjects women to the role of torch-bearing silent wives and mothers. Which could be true. But if the Statue of Liberty were a man, it could be interpreted as a chauvinistic symbol for promoting the male image as protector of the nation, implying that women are too weak to be protectors (and are silent since they don't even get their own statue). "Lose/lose." Ideologies are not the best way of figuring out what something means to the culture at large.

And popular culture is, to a great extent, about the culture at large: what people want to see and hear and watch. Whether we like it or not, what ends up in the popular culture is going to be a reflection, at some point, of consensus. And we can either belittle that consensus or try to persuade ourselves that it isn't what it looks like ("Red States didn't vote for Bush because they like him; they just voted out of fear.") or we can try to understand it.

Which brings us to possibility (3):

(3) Popular Culture is the voice of orthodoxy--the assumptions and conventionalities of society--and that isn't automatically a horrible thing.

Of course, if you combine my initial assertion, that we are each undergoing an individual existence, with this secondary assertion of a "crowd" or "mass" orthodoxy, you're going to get an orthodoxy that is riddled with exceptions, alternate orthodoxies, orthodoxies within orthodoxies and subcultures: a multiplicity of layers. Nothing is what it seems.

For the purposes of this site, the orthodoxy of Popular Culture (i.e. what you see on TV or read in popular books) refers to those (often conservative) assumptions that are embedded within culture from political speeches to television episodes.

Take, for instance, the show House. It isn't a preachy show, but there is an underlying morality (like with many crime or mystery shows): (1) everybody lies because everybody has something to protect; (2) science is good and modern medicine is usually right; (3) rules and restrictions prevent smart people from doing their jobs; (4) telling the truth is more important than being kind and may save someone's life; (5) kids are products of their environment, i.e. lying parents.

We can agree with these assumptions; we can disparage them; we can point out (which is more interesting) when they conflict within the show. We can make generalized ideological statements about them: "These assumptions reflect the heremetic commodification of goods in an imperialistic society." Or we can say, "People respond to these assumptions. Why? Where else are these assumptions reflected? What do they reveal about human nature?"

We can, in other words, let the orthodoxy speak. And speak for itself. We don't have to agree. But we can give it space to breath. We don't have to judge (which that is what ideological approaches usually lead to). This approach allows for appreciation and understanding without judgment. Nobody is trying to save the world here. We just want to see it.

Why I Think I Can Do This

Why I think I can do this (let the orthodoxy speak) is because I am a conservative libertarian raised in an intellectually stimulating household by iconoclastic parents in an orthodox religion.

Basically, I'm an active, somewhat unorthodox Mormon who votes conservative and doesn't like intellectual bosh. How this happened is beyond me and, I think, to my equally independent siblings as well.

1/3rd of the Family

I was raised in a house without a TV, not for any religious or cultural reasons; for no other reason, really, than that my parents didn't want it around. We went to movies quite a lot. The first movie I remember seeing was Star Wars, the original, which I adored. I now own a TV, VCR and DVD as do all of my siblings. But I don't regret being television-less as a child, although I sure did complain about it at the time.

We had bookcases in every room in our house, and they were filled with just about every possible combination of books and magazines: Tolkien, Sports Illustrated, Star Trek novellas, Cricket Magazine, Reader's Digest, National Geographic, The Bible, The Book of Mormon, World Book Encyclopedia, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, art books, history books, C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, the Melendy books, Steven Kellogg, Brothers Grimm, Hilda Van Stockhum, John Irving, religious commentary books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Shakespeare, Japanese magazines, computer manuals, books on ballet, Highlights Magazine, archaeology books, library books.

Our family attended Shakespeare plays and operas and ballets. My dad listened to opera every Saturday morning. My mother, who is an artist, had paintings by Van Gogh and Bruegel hung about the house.

Such an upbringing would—you'd have thought—have produced a bunch of intellectual snobs.

Well, we may be intellectuals. And we may be snobs. But we aren't intellectual snobs, or at least we don't bear the traits usually associated with intellectual snobbery.

This is because, thank goodness, I was never fed any accompanying ideology to all this high culture. We went to Shakespeare and listened to opera and watched ballet for the same reasons my parents didn't own a TV—it's what they felt like doing. They liked Shakespeare and opera (at least my dad) and ballet. It was natural. We didn't go because it was Important or Educational or Significant or Intellectual.

Furthermore, I don't remember my mother (who read to me up until Junior High) ever asking me "What Does This Book Mean To You?" The artistic experience was not cluttered up by any Deep Thinking or even any Deep Moral Thinking. I was allowed to enjoy the book or the play or the painting or the poem or the whatever. Without judgment. Just cause I wanted to.

Which isn't to say my family isn't opinionated. I can remember arguments over The Merchant of Venice, The Black Stallion (the movie) and Midsummer Night's Dream. I can also remember arguments over the Yankees, the Dodgers, science, art, religion, and mowing the grass.

So basically I had lots of purposeless high culture and lots of low culture (despite the lack of a television). And I had smart, opinionated people speaking their minds all over the place. And I went to church. And still do. Mormonism has a strong, theological base which spells out profound and yet (in a theological sense) uncomplicated doctrines. Mormonism has tended towards the practical throughout its history. There are icons within Mormonism but the day-to-day experience of Mormonism is, for a religion, comparatively unpretentious. Pray, read your scriptures, go to church, be nice, pretty much sums it up. Don't be stupid is in there somewhere as well.

My feelings about the institutional side of belonging to an organized religion are somewhat more complicated and I address some of those feelings in a series of talks. In sum, the practice of balancing a faith-based belief with an empirical-biased mind within an iconoclastic personality creates . . . a lot of reflection.

So, what does all this have to do with popular culture?

It means I believe in free will. It means I think that people watch reality shows because they want to, not because they've been brainwashed by the media. It means I think the trite, orthodox and conventional messages of popular culture are there because people want them to be there, and I include myself in with "people." And finally, it means that I believe that popular culture is fun and trying to over-intellectualize can also be fun but not necessarily insightful.
One or Two More Thoughts

NOTE: What Do I Mean by Ideologies?
I refer to "ideologies" several times in this Introduction and usually disparagingly. What I mean by ideologies is any perspective that uses the word "construct." I probably use it myself on my blogs so I apologize in advance; still, I get nervous around phrases like "nationalistic construct," "racist construct," "regional construct" because such phrases are inevitably followed up by a view of human nature that excises the personal, individual and idiosyncratic not to mention free will. It's one thing to look at life from a macro and then a micro point of view. It's another to excise the micro altogether: like Marxist ideology which presupposes that everyone reacts according to type. It's a bit Asimov's Foundation series-ish, and although I admire Asimov tremendously, I never bought into the premise.
It's All Real